Review: ‘Sideways Stories’ and the next generation of theater-goers

 From left, Alex Keiper, Taysha Canales and Steve Pacek in 'Sideways Stories from Wayside School' at Arden Theatre Company. (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)

From left, Alex Keiper, Taysha Canales and Steve Pacek in 'Sideways Stories from Wayside School' at Arden Theatre Company. (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)

Sometimes the coolest things happen when you’re not looking. At 10 a.m., for instance, in the theater, when most stages are dark and people don’t think about the theater – unless those people are school-age kids or teachers, and sometime parents.

The other morning, the Arden was jammed at 10 a.m., mostly with grade-school students, primed for a two-hour show called “Sideways Stories from Wayside School.” The show is based on Louis Sachar’s trilogy of kids’ novels about a school of 30 classrooms that was mistakenly built vertically, classroom by classroom, and specifically about the class on the 30th floor. The stories are funny and odd and, in the stage adaptation by veteran playwright John Olive, they have rich elements. But the play itself is helter-skelter without much of a through-line to connect these stories. “Sideways Stories” seems more like a medley, say, than a fully composed song.

But whatever I think about the play doesn’t matter. The kids in the theater were swept into it instantly, and I’ll lay odds not one of them groused that “The Glass Menagerie” would have killed Tennessee Williams if he’d written such a weak through-line. The audience bought into the characters, which are nicely developed, and reacted exuberantly to each story. But mostly, I think, they were convinced by “Sideways Stories” for the same reason I was: The Arden’s production is constantly clever, a little bizarre, staged for maximum excitement and seamlessly acted.

When you attend high-toned regional theaters like the Arden, you can expect much of the above in regular season productions, and frequently you’ll be satisfied. But there’s a whole world of meticulous theater happening out there when most of us aren’t looking – and professional companies like the Arden and Walnut Street Theater are spending energy and money to give kids the same level of quality in the morning that they reach for adults at night. (Other professional companies, like the locally based and nationally touring Enchantment Theatre Company, focus solely on theater for children.)

The Arden even won a best-play Barrymore a few years ago for a children’s show. The companies producing these high-end kids’ shows would argue, rightly, that the overall idea is to maintain a standard of excellence, no matter who’s the target audience. But the companies also offer quality shows so that kids will want more, and may even get the bug for after-school theater classes.

If you look over the names of the cast and creative team for “Sideways Stories,” you’ll see a list of polished talent: 11th Hour Theatre Company co-founder Steve Pacek, who plays seven roles and is a hoot; Rachel Camp, Robert Hager, Alex Keiper and Dave Johnson, who have a wealth of experience among them and are performing with others constantly building their careers; the maximum-strength sound and video designer Jorge Cousineau, whose work here was as demanding as it is for an “adult” show; the versatile director Whit MacLaughlin, as talented in staging children’s theater as he is at running the outré New Paradise Laboratories.

The production in infused with effective stage business, but the real magic for me came after the curtain call, when the cast fielded questions. Little hands shot up everywhere – I’d say about a hundred of them, frantically waving to be recognized. Five students got to ask questions, and the cast diligently answered them and invited the audience to ask the rest in the lobby, where all the cast members made themselves available. They were swarmed by the kids. One groundrule: no autographs, but hugs and high-fives were welcome. Now there’s something you’ll find at the theater only in the morning.“Sideway Stories from Wayside School” runs through Feb. 15 at Arden Theatre Company, on Second Street, north of Market. 215-922-1122 or www.ardentheatre.org.

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